Lena Horne, 92, passed away on Sunday evening at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Miss Horne will forever be known as one of the most beautiful and talented actresses in the world. However, she also will be known as the African American activist who valiantly broke racial barriers in Hollywood.
Film historian Donald Bogle is quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “What people tend not to fully comprehend today is what Lena Horne did to transform the image of the African American woman in Hollywood.”
In 1942, Lena Horne became the first black woman to sign a complicated contract with a major studio that stipulated she would never have to play a maid. One year later, she starred in two all-black cast musicals, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather.” In 1957, she told the New York Times,
“Mississippi wanted its movies without me…So no one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut.”
Miss Horne’s vocal discontent with MGM studio heads led to fewer roles though the relationship with the studio would catapult her career to international superstar status. The advent of television gave her another venue to showcase her talent as did world concert tours. She would also star on Broadway, where she broke even more ground with her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which according to the Washington Post set the standard for the one person musical review. The performance gained her a special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.
Lena Horne’s stage presence was legendary, early reviewers called her everything from “aloof” to “angry,” but the predominately white audiences didn’t seem to care. Her offstage presence was even more legendary and formidable as she would buck the segregrated status of venues by refusing to have her or her musicians confined to black quarters, insisting they stay in the hotels where she was booked to perform.
She appeared with Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, James Baldwin and others at the March on Washington in 1963. She was an active fundraiser for the NAACP and National Council of Negro Women. And because of her activism and friendship with Paul Robeson, Miss Horne was blacklisted in the 1950s.
One of her self-admitted controversial and ambitious decisions involved marrying white conductor and bandleader Lenny Hayton in 1947. She would remark of the marriage, “he could get me into places no black manager could.”
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was primarily raised by her maternal grandmother who was educated and politically active in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
To assist her family financially, as a teenager she began dancing in the chorus line at the Cotton Club. By the age of 19, she left peforming to marry Louis J. Jones, a Democratic Party operative in Pittsburgh. The short-lived marriage produced two children, Gail and Edwin.
In 1978, she starred as Glinda the Good in “The Wiz,” a black adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” with the late Michael Jackson. The film was directed by her then son-in-law, Sidney Lumet.
She is survived by her daughter, Gail and granddaughters, Amy and Jenny Lumet. Her son Edwin died in 1970 and Lenny Hayton passed away in 1971.